Among the most impressive Roman remains that can be seen today in Portugal are the large, prosperous farms and luxurious villas built in the countryside by the elite. The villas were splendidly decorated with mosaics, frescoes, and sculptures. Some of the mosaics, still in situ or exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Lisbon, are often very well preserved. They are also a valuable source of information on the rural lifestyle in this area of the Roman Empire. Their study can tell us much about the lifestyles of their occupants, from their love of hunting or their passion for the circus races to their devotion to scenes from mythology.
Torre de Palma, located in the Alentejo region, a South-Central region of Portugal, is one of the largest Roman villas in Portuguese territory. It was occupied from the 2nd through the 5th century AD and was located next to the road that connected Olisipo (Lisbon) and Scallabis (Santarém) to Augusta Emerita (Mérida, Spain). A year after the discovery of Torre de Palma in 1947, all the mosaic pavements were removed and transferred to the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia in Lisbon. Sadly not all the mosaics found at this villa were on display when I visited the museum last month. For example, the “mosaic of the muses“, one of the most famous Roman mosaics from Portugal, is currently in storage. Another famous mosaic found at Torre de Palma and not shown here is the mosaic depicting five horses together with their names. The figurative and geometric mosaics of this villa are of great importance to the study of mosaic art in Hispania, both from an iconographic and technical perspective.
In Milreu, located in the Algarve region, the southernmost region of mainland Portugal, the remains of a luxurious Roman villa contains some of the finest mosaics from the Roman imperial era to be found in the region. In the surrounding rooms of the villa and on the exterior of the temple devoted to the cult of water, polychrome mosaics with geometric motifs and underwater scenes can be admired in situ. The profusion of mosaics in the Algarve with fish motifs and marine backgrounds gives some indication of the importance of the industrial production of garum (Roman fish sauce) in this part of Lusitania. The fishes depicted in these mosaics are sea bass, dories, groupers, squids and dolphins together with mussels and urchins.
In Conímbriga, one of the best preserved archaeological sites in Portugal, mosaic floors and foundations of many houses and public buildings remain. The city, located along the road connecting Bracara Augusta (Braga) and Olisipo (Lisbon) included its own bathing complex, a sophisticated heating system, ornamental pools, and collonaded gardens. The mosaics on the entire site are in almost perfect condition, with incredibly detailed and colourful designs. Some, located in the so-called House of the Fountain, depict famous scenes from mythology (the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, Actaeon being eaten by his hounds, Perseus showing the head of Medusa to the sea-monster, Bellerophon battling the Chimera) but the area was not accessible to the public at the time of my visit (check this site here to see the mosaics).
Situated near the city of Beja (Pax Julia), are the Roman ruins of Pisões. The excavations unveiled a large Roman villa with over forty rooms arranged around a small peristyle with rich decorative elements found on the floors and on its walls. Partial excavations have been made in the residential sections of the villa (pars urbana). Various rooms and the atrium used to contain very fine monochrome and polychrome mosaic floors but the excavations and now the abandonment of the site have left the mosaics exposed to the elements, resulting in their deterioration.
The village of Mertola, in the Lower Alentejo region next to the Spanish border, is picturesquely set on the slopes above the left bank of the Guadiana. Its strategic location made it an important fluvial commercial port from classical antiquity through the period of Islamic domination. Recent excavations, in the area of what was the forum of the Roman city (Myrtilis), have brought to light an impressive paleochristian religious complex that integrates a Roman cryptoporticus, a 6th-century baptistery and an interesting collection of mosaics with strong Byzantine influence. Of a series of mosaics depicting mythological and hunting scenes, the mosaic panel with Bellerophon riding Pegasus and spearing Chimera, is quite remarkable.
This scene shows the struggle between Good and Evil, adapted to the Christian liturgy of the period. The classical hero Bellephoron, in the figure of Saint Michael or Saint George, kills Chimera, the demonic monster with the serpent’s tail that spits fire from its three heads.
Finally, the mosaics found in the Roman villa of Rabaçal near Conimbriga are well worth a mention. The excavations undertaken in the pars urbana since in 1984, date of the villa’s discovery, have brought to light about 250 square meters of mosaic flooring of exceptional interest dating from the middle of the 4th century AD. Two decades after the first excavations, the mosaics are still preserved in situ protected by a thin layer of sand awaiting a shelter structure. For this reason, the mosaics are currently hidden from public view. The figurative motifs of the mosaics found in the western corridor of the octagonal peristyle depict the four seasons, a quadriga (four-horse chariot), a seated female figure and some of the geometrical and vegetal compositions.
Further photos can be viewed from my image collection on Flickr.
- Roman Mosaics In the Collections of the National Museum of Archaeology (Instituto Português de Museus, Lisboa 2005)
- Roman Villa of Rabacal, a work of art in the landscape by Miguel Pessoa (1998)
- Milreu Ruins (Collection Roteiros da arqueologia Portuguesa, 2002)